Most smartphone or tablet users, when not on Wi-Fi, are probably browsing the web on a 3G mobile internet connection. The UK was slow off the mark when it came to 4G adoption, straggling a few years behind the US and East Asia's establishment of 4G infrastructure. Now, just as 4G tariffs are getting affordable in the UK (and, in some cases, are totally free), there’s already a buzz building around 5G. So, what’s the big deal?
What is 5G?
5G is a broad term the refers to the next major leap forward in mobile communications standards. In particular, it looks to bring faster mobile broadband speeds to smartphone, tablet and wearable device users wherever a Wi-Fi connection from a broadband router isn’t available.
So, How Fast is "Faster"?
Lots faster. Like, seriously fast. As a developing standard, it’s still not certain just how fast 5G will be once its available to the public, but it could be as fast as 250 times the top speeds available to 4G. Telecommunications giant Ericsson recently managed to hit a connection speed of 5Gbps, but even Samsung’s earlier tests, hitting 1Gbps, would make 4G look like a dial-up connection. To put that in perspective, if a high definition movie currently takes around six minutes to grab on a 4G connection, you’d be getting it over 5G in closer to six seconds.
It’s worth mentioning that some major players in the area have looked skeptically upon the mass roll out of speedy 5G speeds. To put it simply, there’s little space for large channel bandwidths and new frequency bands capable of delivering the improved connections -- back in 2011, Ericsson’s Hakan Eriksson (then CTO, now head of Ericsson in Australia) argued that there may not be a 5G standard in the same way as we’d define 3G and 4G.
Instead of just focussing on faster speeds then, the eventual roll-out of 5G may bring with it some other benefits too. These could include better power efficiency, being less demanding of a gadget’s battery power, and the ability to have more devices sharing a single connection. Which leads us nicely onto...
More Than Just Instant Cat Videos
The world is quickly becoming a data-driven, sensor-laden thing that once seemed the reserve of science-fiction movies. With everything from parking spaces to fridges connected to the web, we’re moving rapidly towards the era of the “Internet of Things”, with the myriad devices around us able to communicate with each other with little input required on our behalf. As the number of connected devices rises, a robust wireless network will become ever more important. Think of the data requirements of driverless cars, beaming traffic and video information to each other in order to ensure safe journeys. If ever such technologies are to become mainstream, 5G connectivity will likely make up the backbone.
We’re also increasingly reliant on cloud services in our day-to-day lives, for both work and pleasure. Whether you’re collaborating on a Google Docs spreadsheet or sending a photo album to friends over Dropbox, we’re sharing valuable information all the time. With the accelerated lives we all seem to be living these days, the ability to work on complex, data-hungry projects remotely, or being able to send files of giant sizes whilst waiting for a train will only become more and more valuable to businesses.
When Will We Get 5G?
A new mobile standard seems to be set every ten years or so since the roll out of the “1G” Nordic Mobile Telephone system in 1981. 2G came in 1991, 3G took the crown in 2001, and though the UK was late to the party, 4G started its rise to prominence in 2011, being standardised by 2012. In other words, we should start expecting to see a commercial roll out of 5G somewhere around 2022. EE, for instance, has already committed to a 2022 roll-out of a next-gen mobile network.
What’s Stopping the UK From Falling Behind Again?
Haven’t you heard? The government is convinced that our current economic woes can (at least in part) be solved by investing heavily in our digital prospects, so it won’t be making the same mistake it did when it let 4G connectivity slip past us for so long.
Speaking at CeBIT 2014, David Cameron spoke of his desire to make the UK a leader in the "Internet of Things" race through a £45 million investment, suggesting that freeing up some of the UK's spectrum for commercial use could also benefit the economy to the tune of £100bn by the year 2025. Cameron also revealed that a partnership between UK and German universities was pioneering the tech that would eventually arrive to prop up our 5G networks. Teams from Germany's University of Dresden are currently working alongside boffins at King’s College University and the University of Surrey to co-develop a working 5G option.
A recently-inked EU incentive will also benefit the UK’s 5G roll-out. The EU has partnered with South Korea, with the two territories sharing research and technologies relating to the development of the next-gen mobile broadband standard. South Korea is leading the way in 5G research at the moment, and is the key driver towards that planned early 2020’s commercial 5G roll-out. The partnership will see the EU and South Korea working together to ensure that radio spectrums are compatible ahead of any proposed 5G launch. The development of infrastructural support for the Internet of Things will also be a major part of the partnership.
Other preparations are also being made to ensure the UK is ready to bask in 5G-connected glory come the turn of the decade. Ofcom and broadcasters are expected to clean up the UK terrestrial TV airwaves, selling off space in the 700MHz band for use with 5G networks. While it means another widespread terrestrial TV retune will have to be endured, it could mean we’ll all get a bunch of new HD stations, as well as paving the way for speedy 5G connections to our phones.